Thursday, February 25, 2021

Furman rallies past Citadel, gets title shot

Noah Gurley had 21 points, nine rebounds and five second-half blocks to help Furman
rally for a 72-63 win over The Citadel Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Senior Night is always an emotional one at college basketball venues everywhere. There was the typical type of sentimental feeling at Furman Wednesday night when Clay Mounce was honored in a pregame ceremony prior to the final home game of the regular season.

After that, Furman fans must have experienced a wide range of emotions. It probably could be broken down like this:

  • First half - meh
  • Early second half - horror
  • Middle second half - encouraged
  • Late second half - happiness
  • Postgame - jubilation
Reigning Southern Conference Player of the Week Noah Gurley had 14 points and five blocks in the second half to help Furman rally from a 10-point deficit for a 72-63 win over an undermanned but feisty Citadel squad. Minutes later in Greensboro, the SoCon's last-place team, Western Carolina, stunned first-place UNCG, 81-80. That came two days after the Catamounts lost on their home court to the Spartans by 21.

Those two results vaulted Furman into first place with one game left in the regular season - a now even bigger showdown at Wofford Saturday night.

"That was quite a finish. The last 15 minutes of the game we started playing with the right spirit and right mentality," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Give credit to Citadel. The job Duggar (Baucom) has done this year has been really incredible. It's not a team you can take lightly.
"They were the aggressor for a lot of the game, but our guys hung in there and didn't let themselves get too down. We had some guys off the bench step up. ... I couldn't be more proud of Noah and how he's playing."

The Paladins (16-7, 10-4) shot 63 percent in the second half, including a run of 16-of-20 shooting from the floor from the 15:50 to 1:20 mark. Furman hit each of its last eight shots in that run. Gurley finished with 21 points, nine rebounds and the five blocks for the game to lead the way.

"The big part for us was getting stops," Gurley said. "Collin Kenney takes the lid off the rim with a big three (to cut the lead to 45-38) and then Mike (Bothwell) started getting downhill, but the key was defense."

Furman made 10-of-12 field goals inside the arc in the first half, but hit just 3-of-16 from three to trail 32-31 at the break. Those shooting woes lingered into the second half as the Paladins made just one of their first five shots. Meanwhile, Citadel (12-11, 5-11) made seven consecutive shots to take a 47-38 lead with 14:45 left but the Bulldogs shot just 6-of-23 the rest of the way.

The Paladins started to creep back in it after two buckets from Bothwell and a layup by Alex Hunter in a 50-second span cut the lead to 47-44. Furman trailed 54-53 with 9:02 left when all those three-point misses finally started to even out. The Paladins got three consecutive threes - two by 6-foot-10 secret weapon Jonny Lawrence sandwiched around one by Gurley - to take a 62-54 lead with 7:24 left.

"We just really had to turn the energy. I credit them for being really fired up and ready to play," said Bothwell, who had 10 of his 14 points and five of his six rebounds in the second half. "Once we got on that run, we just kind of maintained that energy and carried it over to our defense. ... Noah was phenomenal in the post."

Gurley delivered the knockout blow with 2:44 left when he dunked off a lob from Jalen Slawson to give Furman its biggest lead at 70-59. Citadel, which was without starting guard Fletcher Abee and used only seven players, seemingly had no answers down the stretch.

Hunter, who took a nasty spill face first to the floor in the first half, came back and finished with 14 points and five assists. Also Wednesday, Hunter wasn't honored in the pregame senior ceremony as he plans to come back and play again in the 2021-22 season. Mounce got back on track a bit offensively as he had nine points on 4-of-8 shooting and three steals. Unlike Hunter, Mounce redshirted as a freshman and likely didn't have many options left for classes for a potential sixth year of school next fall.

Lawrence finished with nine points on 3-of-4 shooting 3-pointers. He's made 9-of-18 from three over the last four games after going 0-for-4 from three from Dec. 22 to Feb. 12. Slawson didn't score, but finished with eight rebounds and seven assists.

"Alex was just a warrior. His lip and eye are messed up and he got patched up and got back out there and fought," Richey said. "I could go on and on just about his growth this year. Over this last month-and-a-half, the confidence, toughness and fight that he's been playing with.
"He's decided he wants to come back for another year, which we're all pretty thrilled about. I joked with him telling him that 'nobody's ever going to catch the (career) win record now,' but that's what he is. He embodies a winner."

Now all the attention shifts to the regular season finale at Wofford (14-8, 11-5) Saturday at 7 p.m. A win would give Furman the SoCon's regular season championship and No. 1 seed in the SoCon Tournament. A loss would leave the Paladins with the No. 3 seed, as they would not win any tie-breaker with UNCG (17-8, 12-5) if they finished with the same winning percentage.

"If you want to play championship-level basketball, you've got to embrace situations like this. Our guys are ready for that," Richey said. "It's what we work for every single day and now it's in front of you. ... It's going to come down to can we just go possession by possession, stay in the moment and be ready to play a 40-minute game.
"I thought our resolve tonight was critical and we're going to need that as we go forward. As we finish the regular season and go into the Southern Conference Tournament, it's not always all going to go your way. You've got to be able to mentally work through that and I thought that was a positive step for our group tonight."

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Gurley helps Paladins sweep Mercer

Noah Gurley had 24 points and 10 rebounds in Furman's
70-60 win at Mercer Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Furman's Noah Gurley only missed three shots Saturday at Mercer. Two of those came consecutively early in the second half. He didn't run that streak to three in the most sure-fire way for a big man to not miss. Gurley made a steal and flew to the bucket for an electrifying dunk that gave Furman a 33-32 lead with 16:28 left and the Paladins never trailed again.

Gurley finished with a season-high 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds to power Furman to a big 70-60 victory - its 12th consecutive win over the Bears. After Mercer shot 55.6 percent in Furman's 83-80 win in Greenville on Jan. 2, it shot 39.7 percent Saturday.

"In moments like this, especially when you're on the road, big-time teams find a way to make big-time plays and I think our guys did that," Furman coach Bob Richey said on the Furman Radio Network's postgame show. "It wasn't our prettiest night. We didn't have some outstanding shooting night from three by any stretch, but I thought we made critical plays in critical moments."

The Paladins improve to 15-7 overall and 9-4 in the Southern Conference with one week left in the regular season. Furman is in second place in the SoCon, with a slim percentage points lead over Wofford (14-8, 11-5) at .692 to .688. UNC Greensboro (16-7) rallied past Chattanooga Saturday to remain in first place at 11-4 (.733).

Furman led by as many as nine in the first half before Mercer (13-9, 6-8) chipped away. Felipe Haase's buzzer-beating 3-pointer cut Furman's lead to 27-26 at the half. Mercer led 32-31 before Gurley's game-changing play. The junior's large wingspan allowed him to reach for a left-handed interception of a pass. He spun around the intended receiver of that pass at midcourt and took one long dribble before soaring to the basket for the jam.

That started a 13-0 run over the next four minutes as the Paladins took their biggest lead of the day at 44-32. The Bears got it down to four three times, but never got closer. After Mercer cut the lead to 51-47, Mike Bothwell answered with a layup. When it was 53-49, Gurley hit a pair of free throws. When the Bears got it to 55-51, Gurley came back with a jumper.

Gurley then buried a 3-pointer with 2:04 left and Bothwell sealed the win with a layup, pushing the lead to 62-51 with 1:10 left. Furman was able to maintain the lead for much of the second half thanks to excellent foul shooting. After not making a trip to the line in the first half, the Paladins hit 17-of-19 free throws in the second half.

"That's three really good games in a row for Noah. ... That three to put us up nine was a pretty big play," Richey said. "It's just his demeanor. He's just out there playing freer. ... He's playing a little bit more patient and picking his spots to drive."

Gurley's double-double marked the third time in the last five games that he's grabbed double-digit rebounds. Entering this season, Gurley had just two games with double-digit rebounds. Bothwell finished with 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting and had six rebounds. Jalen Slawson added 12 points, six rebounds and two steals. Furman, which had just three turnovers in the second half after nine in the first half, had a 33-26 rebounding advantage and a 20-0 edge in bench points.

Mercer sharpshooter Ross Cummings, who had 22 points in the teams' first meeting, was held to eight points Saturday. Cummings, who was averaging 15.3 points per game and shooting 44.2 percent from three entering Saturday, made 1-of-3 shots from beyond the arc.

"It's fun seeing Noah and Mike play like that," Richey said. "To come in here and shoot 28 percent from three and turn it over like we did in the first half, to still get a double-digit victory is a credit to how hard we played defensively against a very good offense."

The Paladins will host VMI in a makeup game Monday at 7 p.m.

Friday, February 19, 2021

There is no joy in Greenville

The view of Furman's Latham Baseball Stadium on what
woud've been opening day of the 2021 season Friday.

I went to Furman's Latham Baseball Stadium today. I didn't know what else to do. It's what I've done seemingly every second or third Friday in February for about the past 25 years. While opening day was celebrated as college baseball made it's long-awaited return to Division I venues throughout the country Friday, there was no excitement at Furman.

On a beautiful mostly sunny late afternoon at Latham, there were no Paladins. No sign of Middle Tennessee State, the scheduled opponent for the 2021 opener. There was no smell of freshly cut grass or of hot dogs and popcorn from the concession stand. There were no pings off metal bats. There was not one instance of the sweetest sound in all of sports - a fastball popping a catcher's mitt. Just a baseball stadium of nothingness.

There is no joy in Greenville, Furman baseball is out.

I visited Friday in hopes of moving on, which is also why I'm blogging about it. Some say writing is therapeutic. I hope they're right, because Furman baseball is dead and I am not okay. This must be how baseball fans in Brooklyn and Manhattan felt on Major League Baseball's opening day in 1958.

Furman pulled the plug on baseball on May 18, killing a program that had its first game on March 24, 1896 - a 20-13 win at Clemson. I know many have lost much more than I have due to COVID-19, but losing Furman baseball six weeks after the death of John Prine were two gut punches. Prine's last recorded single was the beautiful "I Remember Everything," and I'll be talking about my memories of Furman baseball here. But first a line from my favorite Prine song that has kind of haunted me since the Paladins' last baseball game.

"Summer's end came faster than we wanted."

On March 8, Furman centerfielder Jordan Starkes landed the No. 2 play on ESPN SportsCenter's Top 10 with a leaping catch over the eight-foot fence to rob Campbell of a home run. That helped preserve an 8-2 win for the Paladins as they claimed the series victory in what evidently was the program's final series. Things went downhill fast after that.

Two days later, the program's final game - an 8-2 loss to Quinnipiac. Two days later, that weekend's scheduled home series against Coach Brett Harker's alma mater, the College of Charleston, is cancelled. Five days later, Southern Conference baseball and every other spring sports season is cancelled. Two months and one day later, Furman baseball and men's lacrosse are permanently cancelled.

The sign for the next game that never came.

Coaches and players learned the fate of their sport via Zoom call thanks to the damn pandemic, with no chance to plead their case.

"I'm really not trying to exaggerate, but it's like losing a family member. You're so involved in 35 people's lives and four coaches' lives and after one phone call, it's gone," Harker said. "I'm very thankful that basically all my kids that were willing to transfer out wanting to play elsewhere this year had places to go. Others are taking a year off and will try to land somewhere after this summer. That's helped ease the pain.

"We weren't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but this program had something really special going that went far beyond baseball. Baseball was maybe a third or fourth of it. By the end of my career, I could be the head coach at Georgia but it's not going to be the same. We had an awesome thing going. As much as it hurts, it's going to be okay. We're just going into a different chapter of our lives."

At the time, there were many saying that Furman would be the first of many programs to cut baseball due to financial concerns brought by the pandemic.

It wasn't.

Only Chicago State followed. Bowling Green cut its program before Furman did, but reinstated it just two weeks later. With apologies to Chicago State, Illinois isn't exactly in the same ballpark as South Carolina when it comes to college baseball. Since 1990, only California (10) and Texas (6) has had as many different schools reach the College World Series as South Carolina's four (The Citadel, Clemson, Coastal Carolina and South Carolina).

I doubt that Chicago State's logo was emblazoned atop a professional dugout like Furman's was at the Greenville Drive's Fluor Field. That relationship helped Greenville's crown jewel of a stadium get displayed each year at the Southern Conference Tournament.

Somehow I doubt that was all thrown out the window in two months simply because of the virus. It's not like Furman's baseball program wasn't treated like a black sheep at the school for many years.

But I don't want to go down that road with this story. I've been filled with anger over the past year for many reasons and quite frankly, it's exhausting. Instead, I want to think about the good times.

"I remember everything. Things I can't forget."

Before I started covering and later working for Furman baseball in the press box, I was a season ticket holder along with my friends Hugh and Kathy Hughes. My wife found season tickets to be a perfect early Valentine's or birthday present each year during our courting days.

On one of those courting days I saw Asheville's historic McCormick Field for the first time. On a cold April night in 2009, we watched a 5-26 UNC-Asheville team beat Furman, 4-1. Do you know how hard it is to get someone interested in baseball when the team you're there to see has a total of two singles and three errors? Luckily the game lasted a little over two hours and the tradeoff was a night at The Grove Park Inn, so she really didn't mind.

On to better memories. The biggest would have to be Furman's unbelievable run to its last trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2005. The Paladins entered the final weekend of the regular season needing a three-game sweep at Davidson to even qualify for the SoCon Tournament. Furman's postseason hopes appeared to be toast in the opening game of that series before Joe Daysch's ninth-inning grand slam propelled Furman to the start of a seven-game winning streak.

The Paladins became the first eight seed to ever win the SoCon Tournament after beating top-seeded - and 20th-ranked - College of Charleston, fourth-seeded Elon and back-to-back wins against No. 2 seed Georgia Southern.

A couple of years prior to that run, there were plenty of memories of Tom Mastny mowing down the competition. Furman's career leader in innings pitched (405), Mastny also holds the single-season ERA record of 1.09. That figure was tops in the country in 2003. While he was in the opposing dugout at the time, Harker remembers Mastny too.

"From an opponent's standpoint you weren't all that worried about rolling into Greenville, but you knew on Friday night if you gave up two runs you lost," Harker said. "Because Mastny wasn't giving up more than one. That guy was the real deal."

Mastny went on to become the only Indonesian-born Major Leaguer, spending most of his career as a reliever for my favorite team, the Cleveland Indians. That led to another favorite memory. After surviving a case of Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2006, I "lived like I was dying" in the summer of 2007. While maxing out a couple of credit cards along the way, I saw major league baseball outside of Georgia or Ohio for the first time in my life. Trips to Wrigley Field, old Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown were crossed off my bucket list. The only place I saw the Indians though was a three-game series at the Marlins.

Seeing a Marlins game in the vast Joe Robbie Stadium - or whatever one of the numerous titles the Miami Dolphins' stadium had back then - was kind of like watching a Braves game at Fulton County Stadium in the 80s. You could pretty much roam around wherever you wanted. So during a rain delay (because, Florida), I meandered my way to the closest section to but still high above the Indians bullpen. I yelled down "Hey Mastny, go Paladins!" He sharply turned his head and gave a thumbs up. There was also a quizzical look as he no doubt wondered what some weirdo with Furman ties was doing in Miami watching the Indians and Marlins with about 500 other people on a Wednesday night.

After the Mastny era and the SoCon championship, it was the Jay Jackson era of dominating the competition both on the mound and at the plate. It was a treat to see the former Christ Church standout's wonderful family at every Furman game. After leading the SoCon in ERA in 2008, he was drafted by the Cubs. He battled his way through a minor league pitching career before making his MLB debut with the Padres in 2015 and then helped the Brewers reach the playoffs in 2019.

I began covering Furman sports for The Greenville News in the fall of 2012. That finally got me in the press box, where I always wanted to be. There were some fun off-the-record, postgame reviews of umpires and players with just me and a pair of Furman legends, SID Hunter Reid and former coach Ron Smith, back then.

After being laid off by The News in the fall of 2016, I wanted some way of continuing to cover Furman sports. Inspired by my friend Rudy Jones' incredible state college baseball blog (, I created the Furman Baseball Blog. That served as a blueprint for what became the Furman Sports Report.

I sure picked a good year to do it in 2017. The first event I covered for the blog was Harker - in his first season as head coach - introducing legendary pitching coach Leo Mazzone as a special advisor to the program. After the press conference we sat in the rocking chairs along right field porch at Latham Stadium for an hour listening to Mazzone tell stories.

After a stretch of going 3-17 in the middle of that season, Furman won 14 of its next 15 games. The Paladins won each of their final six series that year and made a run to the SoCon Tournament championship.

After starting the 2016 SoCon Tournament's 9 a.m. game with a 3-0 complete game shutout of ETSU in two hours, eight minutes, Furman's Will Gaddis started the 2017 Tournament's 9 a.m. game which lasted one hour and 58 minutes. That's how long it took for the Paladins to "run-rule" Wofford 13-3 in seven innings. That game was highlighted by Cameron Whitehead's three-run home run that landed on the roof of the New York Life building beyond Fluor Field's Green Monster. The shot went an estimated 440 feet.

"That ball was blasted," Harker said. "It was just exhilarating."

The next day, Furman sophomore Grant Schuermann ran his consecutive streak of no earned runs allowed to 25 as the Paladins beat No. 1 seed Mercer, 6-1. In a winner-take-all finale three days later, the Paladins ran out of gas in its loss to UNC Greensboro. It was Furman's fourth game in a span of 30 hours.

There were two standout days earlier in that 2017 season, in which Furman matched the school record for wins with 33. At Samford, Gaddis and Schuermann became the first duo in school history to earn complete game wins in a doubleheader as each went the full nine innings. 

After his days at Furman, Gaddis returned to the mound at Fluor Field again. This time as a starter for the Asheville Tourists.

The only loss in that 14-1 stretch was a 5-0 defeat at Gardner-Webb. Facing the same starter a week later at Latham Stadium, Furman set single-game school records for home runs (seven) and hits (28) in a 27-10 win. Carter Grote had a school record six hits that night.

Speaking of Grote, a real shame of baseball's end is the end of the Carter Grote award. After coming to Furman as a walk-on with not a ton of expectations from the coaching staff, Grote simply never stopped hitting from the day he set foot on campus. He also never stopped working and was the type of player a coach dreams of guiding.

"Carter Grote summed up everything we tried to build there," Harker said. "That kid did it all and did it the right way. That's kind of the Rudy story except Rudy ends up being the best player on the team."

The sports world got a glimpse of Grote's greatness on March 15, 2016. About an hour after Daniel Fowler lifted the Furman men's basketball team to a 58-57 win with a buzzer-beating shot against Louisiana-Monroe in the Tournament, Grote hammered a walk-off three-run home run as Furman beat No. 23 College of Charleston, 9-7. I was fortunate enough to see both happen live, then I woke up the next morning to see Fowler and Grote being interviewed live on ESPN. Two finer representatives of Furman you could not find.

"Now we'll say goodbye and go back home when the day is done."

While Furman baseball has provided many memories on the field over the years, the off field memories have been very special. I was fortunate to hear Jeff Francoeur, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine speak at the Upstate Diamond Classic annual baseball fundraisers. Under Smith's leadership, the baseball program was one of the school's first to raise money for support. Between his stellar basketball and baseball playing careers at Furman, years of service as a color commentator for radio basketball broadcasts and the tireless, underappreciated work for the baseball program for 23 years as head coach, Smith would definitely have a spot on my Mount Rushmore of Furman athletics.

For the past seven years, the entire baseball team participated in getting their heads shaved after a game at Fluor Field each season. It was done to cap off its annual fundraising efforts for the Vs. Cancer Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation.

It was also the little things you just notice by being at the ballpark each day. It was how after every game - win or lose, the hugs Harker shared with his family were the same. Harker's children often climbed into his lap while he drove the bunker rake around the infield after games.

"One of the big things I made a promise to wife was that my attitude would not let my kids know if we won or lost the game," Harker said. "Their childhood happiness is not going to be determined on how many times an 18-22 year old touches home plate. I didn't make it mandatory to my assistants to have their families come, but I wanted them here.

"Number one, I wanted my kids and their kids to grow up and think back on Furman baseball and how they were the luckiest kids in the world to experience it. Number two, I wanted my 18-22 year olds to be able to see me be all into this game for nine innings but when it's over, family came first. That's the bottom line. I thought that was the biggest lesson I could ever teach them in their four years with me."

As this season approached, Harker was looking at his first year without baseball since he was four years old. Then he got a call to come home and serve as the pitching coach at Hillcrest High. Harker graduated from Hillcrest in 2002, 10 years after I did.

"My family is looking forward to this offseason to see what shakes out in the college world and what opportunities are there for us, but in the meantime we would love to not have to miss a year of baseball. Both so that I don't go crazy, but also to give us something to look forward to on a Friday night," Harker said. "I didn't know how to do it and wasn't sure how that was going to take place. Then I got a call from (Hillcrest head coach) Dale Nelson. He starts off by saying, 'I don't mean to insult you,' thinking there's no shot I'd want to come help out. He didn't know that it was the exact thing I needed in my life at that point.

"It's been an awesome opportunity. It's really cool to go back to where me and my wife met and my baseball career really started. ... It's been good for my heart. When I explained it to my kids, my three-year-old said, 'you remember when the purple boys would play and we would wait and you would call us and we would run out on the field. We get to do that again?' I'm sitting there realizing this is why I didn't want to take a year off. This is a big part of their life too."

I'll miss the players and coaches and the moments they create, but I'll miss the folks I sat alongside watching the Paladins with the most. In addition to writing about the team for my blog, the last couple of years I was a tiny part of the program handling social media updates during home games. The friendships made at Furman also helped me become part of the rotation of scorekeepers for the Greenville Drive. Did I mention getting paid to watch baseball is a dream job?

Harry Caray, who helped me fall in love with baseball after my parents got cable in 1985, used to say "you can't beat fun at the old ballpark," and he was so right. On a typical home game at Paladin Stadium, we had this seating arrangement: Jay Rateree on the PA, Chris Carter running the scoreboard, Reid keeping score, me writing, tweeting or editing video replays, Furman legend Ken Pettus being legendary, Dan Scott on the play-by-play radio call and Tom Van Hoy on color commentary.

Thanks to the MLB.TV, Scott and I had major league baseball in Ohio fully covered. I'd keep track of the Indians on my laptop, while Scott would monitor his beloved Reds. We'd provide updates - or razzing, usually razzing - to Reid on the Braves and to Carter on the Red Sox. Honestly, Carter and I spent just as much time talking Jerry Lawler, Lance Russell and other old Memphis pro wrestling figures as we did baseball.

When they could come up for air from their duties with other spring sports, assistant SIDs Jordan Caskey, Chandler Simpson and Julie Pare would visit. Alex Loeb, Ben Mathey, photographers Carly Rose and Jeremy Fleming, and students Forest Stulting and Maddy Craft also made the press box fun. Stulting and Craft used their experience working with the baseball program to pursue pro careers in the sport.

This baseball team meant so much to so many. Many of us who never set foot on the diamond. There's a void there now that I don't know how to fill. The biggest reason why baseball is the best sports is that there's always tomorrow. Unless it's the end of the season, then spring is right around the corner.

Until it isn't.

Greenville News: Five Furman seniors stick around for spring season 'to go the distance' in college careers

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Hunter helps Paladins cruise past Samford

Alex Hunter had a career-high 23 points and six rebounds in Furman's
78-64 win over Samford Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

An outmanned Samford men's basketball team came into Timmons Arena Wednesday night and outhustled and outrebounded Furman for much of the first half. The Bulldogs, who were playing without their two leading scorers, got to loose balls and had 10 offensive rebounds in the first half alone.

Then just before halftime, Alex Hunter took over. Furman's senior point guard hit three 3-pointers in a 91-second stretch to turn a deficit into a six-point halftime lead and then helped the Paladins pull away to a 78-64 win.

Hunter finished with a career-high 23 points thanks to a career-high seven 3-pointers (out of nine attempts). Hunter also matched his season high of six rebounds for Furman (14-7, 8-4 Southern Conference), which moved into a tie with Wofford (13-8, 10-5) for second place in the SoCon as each team has a .667 winning percentage in league play. The Paladins are even in the loss column with first-place UNCG (15-7, 10-4) as the Spartans fell at VMI Wednesday.

"It was a really good second half. I credit our guys for getting that effort cleaned up and just doing the things we need to do to make winnings plays," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Give Samford credit. Being down players is always hard, but man those kids fought and battled.

"Those threes by Alex before half were big. ... He was shooting the ball with a lot of confidence. He obviously changes our team when he plays with that much confidence."

Furman trailed 28-25 before Noah Gurley's layup with 3:35 left. Hunter then hit threes on each of the Paladins' next three possessions to give Furman a 36-30 lead at the break.

Hunter's first shot of the second half was a successful three at the 17:57 mark that gave Furman a 44-32 lead, it's biggest advantage at that point. That lead never got under eight and grew to as many as 18. Hunter has made 50 percent of his 3-pointers (22-of-44) over his last six games and has scored at least 15 points in four of those.

"It was kind of an awkward feeling out there. I don't know why we came out a little sluggish, but once guys saw some shots go in we got rolling," Hunter said. "Once I hit those three in the first half, I was like 'alright, I'm feeling it.' The rim just got bigger. It's a cliché, but it's true. Everything you shoot, it feels like is going in and that's how I felt tonight."

Mike Bothwell scored 14 of his 19 points in the second half as the Paladins shot 55.2 percent from the floor after halftime. Bothwell matched his season high with six assists as Furman recorded 20 for the second consecutive game, while committing 10 turnovers. Noah Gurley added 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting and surpassed the 1,000-point mark in his career along the way. Clay Mounce didn't allow a scoreless night to dissuade him from being a big contributor as he had eight rebounds and four assists.

With leading scorers Myron Gordon (15.6 points per game) and Christian Guess (15.1 ppg) out, A.J. Staton-McCray (10.3) was the top scorer available for the Bulldogs (6-12, 2-9) Wednesday. Furman held him to seven points on 3-of-14 shooting. While Samford won the rebounding battle, 35-29, it had only one offensive board in the second half.

"A 20 assist game with 10 turnovers is always a recipe for success around here. To have two back-to-back is great," Richey said. "It was good to see Noah get 1,000. He's gotten better every year. The last two games, he's had 16 points on just eight shots both times. He's really matured."

Next up for Furman is a stretch of four games in the final eight regularly scheduled days of the season. That begins with a game at Mercer on Saturday at 2 p.m. The Paladins are scheduled to host VMI in a makeup game Monday, host The Citadel on Wednesday and then close out the regular season at Wofford on Saturday, Feb. 27.

Mercer (13-8, 6-7) will be coming off a win at ETSU on Wednesday. The Paladins held off the Bears, 83-80, in Greenville on Jan. 2.

"I have a lot of respect for (Mercer coach) Greg (Gary). They play the game the right way and have skill. ... We quickly forget how good this league is. This Mercer team beat Georgia Tech in a multiple possession game earlier in the year," Richey said. "We're going to have to be ready to go and play a little harder than we did tonight. We can't come out the way we came out tonight. That's not going to work on the road.

"I do like where our group's at right now. I like where our depth's at and I like how we're starting to move the ball a little bit better. We're trusting each other and playing more connected."

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Bench helps Paladins hammer Western

Freshman Jonny Lawrence had 11 points off the bench in Furman's 88-70
win over Western Carolina Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Saturday was the 66th anniversary of Furman legend Frank Selvy's 100-point game. For a while, it appeared the Paladins were going to celebrate with a triple-digit game of their own. While they didn't get to 100, what they did get was their most complete game in Southern Conference play.

Eleven different Paladins scored, including four in double figures, as Furman dominated Western Carolina, 88-70, at Timmons Arena. Furman used a 26-4 run in the first half to take a commanding lead that was never threatened. After shooting 68 percent from the floor in the second half at Cullowhee a couple of weeks ago, the Paladins shot 63.6 percent in Saturday's opening half to take a 24-point lead at the break.

"I thought we were complete on both ends. ... We'd been playing pretty hard defensively. Our effort has been really good the past few games. Today, it was really about getting back to playing connected offense," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "I thought we did that, especially in the first half. That's one of our best halves of offensive basketball in a while.

"We had 15 assists and two turnovers in the first half, and was 10-for-20 from three. It's just funny how when you get ball movement like we did, you usually make shots."

While no lead seems comfortable in Southern Conference play, Saturday's allowed for plenty of Paladins (13-7, 7-4) to contribute and the bench responded with 44 points. That's the most for Furman in a SoCon game since scoring 46 in a 107-67 win over The Citadel three years ago. Ten Paladins played at least 13 minutes Saturday, but none played more than 26.

It wasn't just a matter of padding the lead for those bench players though. They were a huge part of building that big lead. Furman trailed 9-2 early before Noah Gurley hit a three and Clay Mounce hit two in a row. After Mounce's second three tied the game at 11-11, Furman bench players accounted for the Paladins' next 12 points.

That part of the run started on a dunk by Jalen Slawson, who had another big game off the bench. Jaylon Pugh tipped a Western pass, gathered the steal, then pulled and popped a 3-pointer. Freshman Jonny Lawrence, who'd logged 23 minutes and scored two points in SoCon play this year entering Saturday, followed with back-to-back threes both off assists from Slawson. Lawrence then found Colin Kenney for a layup that pushed Furman's lead to 23-13.

"Slaw brings all that experience off the bench, which is a major advantage. It speaks to his maturity too, because not everybody would take that the right way. His energy and attitude has been great and it's rubbed off on everybody," Gurley said. "With (freshman) Garrett (Hien) starting, it's just going to help him down the road in his career. He's getting a better understanding of the intensity of the game.

"What y'all saw Jonny do today is what he does to us in practice every day - straight threes letting them rain."

Gurley capped the 26-4 run on a layup that gave Furman a 28-13 lead at the 10:29 mark. Slawson made it a 25-point game with a 3-pointer late in the first half before Gurley's dunk with 30 seconds left staked the Paladins to a 55-31 advantage at the break. It was the second-most points scored in the first half as Furman had 56 in the first half against S.C. State.

The Paladins had eight fouls and two buckets over the first six-and-a-half minutes of the second half, but the Catamounts (9-12, 2-10) never cut the lead under 20 until the final two minutes. Kenney's 3-pointer helped start a 14-2 run as Furman took its biggest lead at 74-42 with 10:25 left.

"I think people are starting to see that we do have depth and it's getting better," Richey said. "Most of them are freshman. Now that we've gotten them some game reps, you can see their confidence coming. They're finding ways to contribute and to stick to their role. ... We're just trying to get the best version of this team as we go down the stretch."

Gurley finished with 16 points - on 7-of-8 shooting - and posted eight rebounds, three assists and no turnovers. Slawson also scored 16 and grabbed six rebounds. Mounce had 14 points and Lawrence scored 11. Furman had 20 assists and matched its season low with seven turnovers, while forcing 18. That helped the Paladins enjoy a 27-7 advantage in points off turnovers.

"I spent some time with Noah yesterday after practice, just wanting to relax him. He's too good of a player to be out here pressing. He's just got to let the game come to him a little bit," Richey said. "He did a great job of that today. When they brought two (defenders), he threw out and when they didn't bring two, he went and scored. ... He got 16 points tonight on eight shots, which is incredibly efficient. He shot more twos than threes, which I always like for him. He took good threes and made two of them (out of three attempts).

"I was messing with Slaw. I told him that if he keeps having 16 (points) and six (rebounds), we're going to keep bringing him off the bench. He's had three really good games there though and as they say, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' I couldn't be more proud of his effort."

Furman is next scheduled to host Samford on Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Paladins go cold in loss at UNCG

Clay Mounce had 19 points and a career-high 16 rebounds in Furman's
64-58 loss at UNC Greensboro Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Two days after Furman stifled UNC Greensboro's offense, the Spartans returned the favor Wednesday. The Paladins made eight shots in the first half and 10 in the second half on their way to a 31.6 percent shooting night in a 64-58 loss at the Greensboro Coliseum. On Monday in Greenville, UNCG made 10 shots in the first half and eight in the second on its way to a 29 percent shooting effort.

The Spartans (14-6, 9-3 Southern Conference), who are now alone in first place in the SoCon as the only team with three league losses, held off a late Furman rally. The Paladins (12-7, 6-4) trailed by 13 after UNCG's Isaiah Miller hit a jumper with 6:18 left, but got the lead down to three with 3:41 left. Clay Mounce's layup with 2:44 left cut the lead to 62-58, but the Paladins went 0-for-8 from the floor the rest of the way.

"Of course I'm disappointed after a loss, but our kids battled. They gave themselves a chance, but we just came up short," Furman coach Bob Richey said on the Furman Radio Network's postgame show. "We had a few moments where mentally, we got a little bit down. ... But we competed and made some tough plays. We've just got to look at it and figure out what we could've done a little bit better.

"It's hard when you lose games and you feel like you didn't try hard enough. We've had a couple of those, but that wasn't the case tonight." 

The made field goals matched the amount of turnovers Furman suffered as it had 18 for the second consecutive game. The last time the Paladins had at least 36 turnovers over a two-game stretch of Southern Conference play was eight seasons ago. To be fair, none of those other teams faced Miller in back-to-back games.

While the third-ranked SoCon player in career steals only had three Wednesday - after six on Monday, Miller was a dominant force everywhere. The preseason SoCon Player of the Year finished with 22 points, eight rebounds and three assists. Miller also helped shut down Furman's guards. Leading scorer Mike Bothwell had nine points on 2-of-10 shooting, while Alex Hunter - who scored 19 Monday - had six Wednesday on 2-of-10 shooting.

Just like on Monday, Furman easily won the rebounding battle against the top rebounding team in the SoCon. The Paladins held a 40-27 edge on the glass, but that brings up another head-scratching stat. Of those 40 rebounds, 19 came on offense but Furman had just 14 second-chance points. While it wasn't as bad as somehow scoring zero off 13 offensive rebounds as the Paladins did in Saturday's loss to Wofford, 14 points off 19 offensive boards just isn't very good. A big result of that second-chance output was Furman making just 7-of-16 layups, which has been a recurring problem this season. 

"There's a reason why NBA teams are looking at (Miller). He made some tough shots tonight. We tried to do some switching with him ... and he just absolutely tore the switches apart," Richey said. "They really ramped up the pressure on our guards. ... They really made them work, increased the pressure and frustrated them. We've got to handle that a little bit better."

A nightmarish start, which included Noah Gurley getting two fouls in the opening 67 seconds and the 6-foot-0 Miller getting an offensive rebound on missed free throws twice(?!?) in the first two-and-a-half minutes, left Furman trailing 6-2 before Jaylon Pugh hit a 3-pointer at the 15:03 mark. That started a 12-2 run capped by Mounce's 3-pointer that gave the Paladins a 14-7 lead with 11:32 left in the first half.

Furman's defense collapsed for the remainder of the half. Miller hit a jumper on three consecutive possessions to start of a string of six straight made field goals by UNCG. The Spartans missed their next two shots, but got a rebound, got fouled and made two free throws after one of those. UNCG then closed the half by making its last five shots. Meanwhile, Furman went 0-for-6 from the floor over the half's last five minutes. All told, the Spartans made 11-of-13 shots over the final 11:22 of the first half and outscored the Paladins 30-14 to take a 37-28 lead into halftime.

Mounce was the lone scorer in double figures for Furman with 19 points and a career-high 16 rebounds. In addition to his nine points, Bothwell matched his career-high of eight rebounds (six offensive). Gurley had seven points on 2-of-11 shooting with a team-high four assists in 23 minutes. Jalen Slawson had seven points and six rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench.

"Clay Mounce was all over the place. A lot of our guys really competed," Richey said. "We can't get discouraged because we've made some strides. We've got to continue to try to find consistency.

"As long as we have fight, we will win our share and the big thing is we will keep getting better."

Furman hosts Western Carolina on Saturday at 2 p.m.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Hunter helps Paladins snap Spartans' streak

Alex Hunter had 19 points, six rebounds and five assists in Furman's
68-49 win over UNCG Monday. Photo courtesy of Furman

On a night when Furman's three top scorers combined for less than half of their season average and the Paladins piled up 18 turnovers, Furman went out and beat the hottest team in the Southern Conference by 19. Alex Hunter had 19 points, six rebounds and five assists as Furman bounced back from a crushing home loss to Wofford Saturday with a 68-49 win over UNC Greensboro at Timmons Arena.

The win snaps the Spartans' seven-game winning streak, their seven-game road win streak and leaves the top four teams in the SoCon each with three league losses and varying amounts of league wins. Wofford (12-6, 9-3) is a half-game ahead of UNCG (13-6, 8-3), who's a half-game ahead of ETSU (11-7, 7-3), who's a half-game ahead of Furman (12-6, 6-3).

On Monday, the Paladins displayed the kind of defensive focus and intensity that has been a baseline for the program's success the past few years. A UNCG team that was averaging 76.2 points per game in league play shot 27.8 percent in the first half, 30.8 percent in the second half and 29 percent (18-of-62) for the game including 2-of-18 (11.1 percent) on 3-pointers.

"I think we did some soul searching yesterday in practice and it showed today," Hunter said. "From start to finish, I think this was our best defensive game of the year."

Furman dominated the boards with a 46-31 rebounding advantage against a team averaging a SoCon-best 40.9 per game. While preseason SoCon Player of the Year Isaiah Miller had six steals for UNCG to move in to third place on the SoCon's all-time ledger, he was held to 14 points on 7-of-18 shooting. Keyshaun Langley had 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting and no other Spartan made more than one shot. UNCG had a season-low five assists as a team.

"Yesterday was a pretty difficult day. We had to self-assess and look in the mirror and figure out how we'd gotten away a little bit from our core values," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "Sometimes you've got to do that in the middle of a season and adversity brings it out the best. I'm really proud of our team and their response. Against a well-coached team that's been playing really well, they played really, really hard and played together.

"We played the way we're supposed to play. The way we've needed to be playing all year. We've played like that in spurts, but tonight was the most consistent in terms of our effort for 40 minutes."

Richey shook up Monday's starting lineup as Colin Kenney and freshman Garrett Hien made their first career starts, while Clay Mounce and Jalen Slawson came off the bench. The moves were meant as more of a message, but they also proved to be fruitful. Hien had seven points and a career-high eight rebounds in 23 minutes. Richey said a goal Monday was to get Hien at least 20 minutes.

Mounce, who has struggled a bit in shooting efficiency lately, had seven points on 3-of-4 shooting and five rebounds. It was the second time in the past three games that Slawson started on the bench, but each of those times he responded in a big way.

After a 12-point, nine-rebound, four-assist showing off the bench in Furman's win at Western Carolina on Jan. 30, Slawson had 14 points, six rebounds and three assists in 21 minutes Monday. He also had just two turnovers and only one foul.

"I don't think Jalen quite understands how good he can be if he commits to playing one way. I'm hoping he felt that today with all the blocks and the plays in transition." Richey said. "He went out there and played with toughness and played connected. I was really proud of his response. ... As my predecessor, Niko Medved, used to always remind me, 'it's not who starts the game, it's who finishes it.' "

Slawson's biggest contribution Monday was a career-high five blocked shots, most of which were cases of the junior chasing down someone from behind to turn a seemingly easy bucket into a miss.

"He makes up for a lot of mistakes us guards have, if we get beat off the bounce or give up a drive," Hunter said. "He makes our lives easier and it translates. When he plays that hard defensively, offense comes easy for him."

Slawson missed out on three more close blocks that were ruled goaltending. Richey said he can live with the goaltends, based on the what it's a byproduct of.

"I don't say anything to him (about goaltending) because his timing is really good It's a natural thing," Richey said. "When he plays like that, let him fly around. And if he will be willing to fly around, it makes things really difficult for opponents."

Furman led 12-11 with 12:49 left before a dominant run gave the Paladins a hefty advantage they never squandered. It started with an 8-0, two-and-a-half minute flurry - a dunk by Noah Gurley off a feed by Slawson; a Mike Bothwell steal and layup; a Clay Mounce steal and layup with an assist from Bothwell; a Hunter layup off a feed from Jonny Lawrence. Hunter's layup with 4:58 left made it an 18-2 run over nearly eight minutes and gave the Paladins a 30-13 lead.

Hunter then added a big pair of threes as he scored all eight of Furman's points over the final 7:18 of the half as the Paladins took a 36-24 lead into the break. UNCG got the lead down to eight on a steal and dunk by Miller with 17:14 left, but Hunter found Slawson for a 3-pointer 21 seconds later and Furman never trailed by less than 11 the rest of the way.

"This is the third game in a row that Alex has played exceptional. As bad as we were in some spots on Saturday, Alex played really well," Richey said. "He's been playing the game the right way and I want to make sure we empower that. I want to make sure he feels free to go out there and play with that confidence because he's earned that. I love how he handled the press and how aggressive he was to get to a shot."

Bothwell was the other Paladin in double figures with 12 points. Gurley had only four points, but the junior grabbed 11 rebounds for the second consecutive game giving him four double-digit rebound games in his career. Gurley also had four assists and two blocks.

The teams will meet again on Wednesday this time in Greensboro. Tip-off is again scheduled for 5 p.m. and the game will again be televised by ESPNU.

"It's one game (Monday's win). We had this look-in-the-mirror moment yesterday and we got a win, so we responded and that's great ... but we've got to consistently go do it," Richey said. "It's got to be part of our DNA and we're going to continue to fight to get there."

Greenville News: Wofford late surge snaps Furman's 19-game winning streak at Timmons